In praise of games and gamers

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Vancouver Computes, October 1998

If like most of the readers of Vancouver Computes, you?re a home computer user, why did you get your computer?

Was it to cruise the Internet?

To help you with school or work?

Or (let?s be honest here), to play games?

Probably, you had some combination of all three reasons. But can you estimate how much time you spend on each of these three activities? Does one of them more than add up to the other two put together? And which one is that, hmmm?

(As far as I can tell, the biggest advantage of a computer over a dedicated game system, at least for many young people, is that while Grandma may not want to buy a PlayStation or an N-64 as a Christmas gift, she can be convinced to buy a favorite grandchild a new computer ?because it will help with the homework?. Right).

So let?s be honest about how we?re using our computers.

Gamers, in fact, push the whole computer industry forward. Computers today almost all come with sound cards and CD-ROM drives?they?re multimedia-capable. That change isn?t because business demanded stereo sound. In fact, despite so-called multimedia editions of standard business programs, sound cards in office computers don?t typically get used for much more than playing fancy beeps, squawks, and other assorted error sounds.

There?s an urban legend about the computer-clumsy boss, whose co-workers replaced his computer?s standard error-beep with the digitized fake orgasm from the film When Harry Met Sally?then clustered outside the office door, just waiting for the next ham-fisted typing mistake.

Please let me know if I?m wrong?maybe multimedia plays an important role in your work experience. And I certainly don?t want to deny fine multimedia products like CD-ROM encyclopedias, or the many attractive educational programs.

But really, all those millions of computers now have sound and CD-ROM because people who play games demanded them.

And I?ve surf the Net and run Windows 95 and Office 97 reasonably well on a 1992-era 486-66 (after I upgraded the hard drive and the RAM, at least). But try and find a current game on the shelves that requires less than a Pentium-100 or so, and really wants at least an MMX-200. Again, the need to play the latest games drives computer purchases.

Which brings me to 3D.

Again, while the high-end graphics-workstation crowd has had skookum 3D (based around the OpenGL standard) for years, I don?t hear much noise from the business community for 3D-capability in the office. Canadian graphics giant, ATI, released a video card last year-- Xpert@Work, bundled with 3D software aimed at the business user. The hardware was okay, but the whole package seemed much less compelling than the corresponding Xpert@Home. Even on the Internet, the VRML standard for 3D Web sites hasn?t really picked up much steam.

But in the gaming community, 3D is hot. All the latest games, from sports simulations to shoot-to-kill, promises to take users to the third-dimension. But to get there, takes some pretty sophisticated hardware.

And while Intel?s MMX extensions were supposed to aid multimedia and 3D, in reality, they haven?t had much effect. (Intel?s competitors have just come out with a series of CPU instructions that promise real enhancements. The first product to include them, AMD?s K6-2 looks good, but we?ll have to see whether programmers actually produce any products to make use of them). And cards like ATI?s line that promise 3D combined with standard video rarely pan out?again, outside of whatever?s bundled in the package, too often, there?s not much on the market that supports them.

Because up until now, like with sound cards five years ago, each brand of 3D hardware is different, and requires special programming to support it. That may change for the better, however. While the workstation OpenGL standard hasn?t caught on in the PC gaming world, Microsoft?s Direct3D is a part of its DirectX programming environment. If programmers write their games for Direct3D, they can avoid having to write different versions for a bunch of 3D hardware.

For now, the most popular 3D hardware is probably the 3DFx Voodoo and Voodoo II series. You won?t find products with the 3DFX brand, however. Look for it on video add-on cards from companies like Diamond and Creative Labs. These cards don?t replace your current video card?they plug into another slot, and connect, using a short cable, to your video card?s output. An easy install.

The various Voodoo II cards remain pricy?you can buy an entire game system for less. But the older original Voodoo can now be bought for around 100 depreciated Canadian dollars. And Pentium users won?t see much difference between the original Voodoo and the high-end model (though P-II users will notice better performance if they can afford to spring for the new one).

I just treated myself (well, my teenager, really) to a Diamond Monster Voodoo card?the older, cheaper 3DFx model. And 14 year-old Joey is really impressed. The improvement is like getting all of next year?s games right now. And a whole lot cheaper than upgrading all his games, too.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan